How to ask for time off for a personal occasion

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Q: Anonymous, Chief Stew, 29:

“I’m a chief stew on a 45m, and I really need to go home for my best friend’s wedding in August, even if just for two days! Our Captain is very strict and totally obsessed with the boat — you know, one of those types who lives for his job and actually dislikes going on holiday — and he never authorises time off mid-season. The boss will be on board in August, but he’s pretty easygoing and that weekend he and his wife won’t have any other guests so I’m sure it would not be a big deal to them. I really don’t know how to approach this situation. I’ve known my best friend since kindergarten and although I really don’t want to lose my job over it, there are some things in life that matter more, like honouring your oldest friend. Any ideas on how I can go to the wedding… and keep the job?”

A: The Crew Coach:

I find it a bit sad that yacht crew are still so often put in the position of having to choose between friends and family and their jobs onboard. I really wish this was not the case and during my leadership training I emphasise how important it is for leaders to give crew this kind of flexibility if they really want to retain good crew as loyal and long-term employees. I do think the situation is steadily improving across the industry, although in your case that sounds like that might not be fast enough!

On many boats, Captains are more understanding of personal obligations and how important it is for crew to maintain healthy relationships with those that matter to them in the outside world. Crew who have a strong and active network in the ‘real world’ tend to be much more resilient and happier onboard than those crew who get tunnel vision and often sacrifice too much of their personal world for the boat.

Those who are prevented from attending special events in their lives tend to become demotivated and lose loyalty, so it’s increasingly seen as a positive move to give crew time off for the things that really matter to them. This is also one of the reasons why rotation is growing more popular across the industry, as it allows for healthy personal lives and a healthy yachting career in the long-term, rather than people burning out from sacrificing too much over a short intense period. If the balance is healthy, when crew are onboard they are more committed and enthusiastic and therefore perform better across the board.

Of course, we have to understand the Captain’s position on this. It’s August, and everyone knows there is no worse time for crew to take off than smack bang in the middle of the season. Your Captain may well be of the mind that when crew ‘sign up’ for yachting they are tacitly accepting they shall never have a day off in August again, particularly if they are older or ‘old school’ in their leadership.

It may seem unfair, but when you think about it, this kind of attitude is seen across lots of industries in peak times; such as tax accountants being told not to take holidays around the end of financial year, or hospitality and retail workers discouraged from booking holidays over Christmas. This ‘holiday block-out period’ is not isolated to yachting, it’s just a bit more intense as you don’t get regular evenings or other days off like you do on land.

In your case the Captain simply and quite understandably doesn’t want to go without his most important crew during the most important month of the working year. You can certainly see his side of the issue, and you can also take from this that he values your presence onboard. He probably relies on you more heavily than you realise. But I can also very much see your side. You’re right: there are things that matter more than jobs and your oldest friend definitely deserves to have you at her wedding.

So the only possible option is to speak to the Captain and explain how important this event is to you. After all, you don’t 100% know he will say no. You can’t know for sure until you ask, and there’s no point getting in a flap worrying about his reaction until you know what it is. You also need to ask ASAP, as the more time you give him to think about it, the more chance your request will be granted. Leaving it to the last minute is guaranteed to get his back up and highly likely to result in a no.

Perhaps you can help him reach the right decision by sounding out some possible freelance replacements for you for those 2 days in August. If you go to him armed with a couple of really strong CVs and assure him that you’ll brief them really well about the boss and the boat beforehand, he might be less concerned about you going.

Another option is to view and frame this as a training opportunity for your second stew to step up for a few days. Just like an acting understudy, your second should be able to do your job in your absence, so this is a great opportunity to test her preparedness for the role. I would still advise you to have an experienced senior temp stew there to give her support while you’re away, and promise that you’ll stay in phone contact, but with the temp stew’s experience and your second’s knowledge of the owners they can surely manage two days without you.

Finally, if he does say no, you have a decision to make. If this wedding is your line in the sand, then it may be time to tell him that as much as you don’t want to, you will have no choice to resign if you can’t have the time off for this. Politely tell him that you’re not throwing out ultimatums and that you love your job—just that this wedding is too important to you to miss. If he still says no… there really are plenty more boats in the sea.

What do you think, should crew be allowed time off for important personal occasions, even during the middle of the season? Let us know in the comments below!

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Alison Rentoul

Alison Rentoul

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